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Release: March 22, 2002

Omara Portuondo, diva of the Buena Vista Social Club, sings at Hancher April 12

The University of Iowa Hancher Auditorium will ring with the sound of vintage Cuban cabaret music when the Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo at 8 p.m. April 12.

"The Buena Vista Social Club," Wim Wenders' 1997 documentary about a group of near-forgotten veteran musicians in Cuba, received an Oscar nomination, and the album from the movie sold more than a million copies and won a Grammy Award in 1998. The movie and recording feature the haunting vocals of the Club's lone female member, Omara Portuondo.

In "The Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo" she is backed by some of the original Buena Vista members, as well as some of the new generation of Cuban musicians.

Often dubbed Cuba's very own Edith Piaf and compared to Billie Holliday, Portuondo has been a mainstay in the cabarets and night spots of Havana for more than half a century, gaining a reputation for performances conveying passion and honesty. But it was not until the "Buena Vista Social Club" film and album that she came to international recognition.

Portuondo was born in Havana in 1930, to a mother from a rich Spanish family and a black baseball player, in an age when interracial marriages were frowned upon. She grew up singing, but entered show business by another route: Her older sister Haydee became a dancer at the Tropicana cabaret, and in 1945 another dancer dropped out just before an important premiere.

Omara had watched her sister rehearse so often that she knew all the steps and was asked to stand in. That accidental engagement led to a famous partnership with dancer Rolando Espinosa. Portuondo still performs at the Tropicana, but now as one of its star singers.

When they weren't dancing, Omara and Haydee sang American jazz standards with musician friends from the Havana nightclub circuit. They became known as Loquibambla Swing and the style they played -- a Cubanized version of the bossa nova with American jazz influences -- became known as "feeling" or "filin" as it was often written in Spanish.

On their radio debut Omara was announced as "Miss Omara Brown, the fiancé of filin," the nickname by which she is still known. By the early 1950s Omara and Haydee had formed one of the most important groups in Cuban musical history, the Cuarteto Las D'Aida, which toured America, recorded for RCA and shared the Tropicana stage with Nat King Cole.

They were engaged at a Miami hotel when the Cuban missile crisis plunged Cuba into its long period of isolation from the United States. Omara immediately returned home, while her sister Haydee stayed in America. In the late 1960s she began her solo career. "So many singers had gone into exile that there was a gap to be filled," she says.

The '70s found her singing with the top charanga outfit Orquesta Aragon and she traveled widely, often to other Communist countries, although she also sang in France and Japan. And all the while she continued recording.

American guitarist and producer Ry Cooder encountered Omara when he was in Cuba in 1995 recording with the Chieftains, and when he returned the following year for the Buena Vista sessions, Omara was by chance recording in the same studio. Cooder immediately invited her to sing the bolero 'Veinte Anos' with Compay Segundo, and it became one of the highlights of the album.

She went on to become part of the legendary Buena Vista performances in Amsterdam and at New York's Carnegie Hall, and she appeared on the follow-up albums, "Buena Vista Social Club presents Ibrahim Ferrer," and, of course, "The Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara."

Omara remains a flamboyant fixture on the music scene, singing regularly at the Tropicana, the Delirio Habanen and the Cafe Cantante -- finally recognized as one of the world's great divas.

Dahl Ford of Davenport Inc. is the local corporate sponsor of the April 12 concert, through the University of Iowa Foundation, with media support from the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

Tickets are $40, $35 and $30. UI students and senior citizens qualify for a 20-percent discount, with Zone 2 and 3 tickets available to UI students for $10. Tickets for audience members 17 and younger are half price.

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

Tickets may be ordered on-line 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Hancher's website:< >. For group sales discounts (groups of 20 or more) contact Rob Cline, Hancher's group sales coordinator, at 319-335-3827.

Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction. Information and brochures may be requested by e-mail: <>.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit < >. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, contact < >. Learn more about Portuondo at < > and < >.